Ghost in a shell

Film review of a few philosophical conundrums posed by “Ghost in the Shell”

A tantalising interplay of technology and existential dread. The film serves as a fertile ground for dissecting themes like cybernetic personal identity and the existential crisis that comes with the idea of augmentation. It conjures questions that are reminiscent of a Wittgensteinian language-game, where each technological advancement redefines the boundaries of representation.

First, let’s delve into the dialogue at the beginning of the film, “No one really understands the risk, to individuality, identity, messing with the human soul.” This statement is evocative of the loss of the self within traditional ethnographic realities through relentless modernisation. The subtext is a fear of losing what makes us unique, a ‘soul, which as a form of free will and agency entails anomie which is a sociological term where a person becomes alienated from what a social structure that embeds personal identity. “ Messing with the soul” has an uncanny resemblance with messing with personal identity qua social structure. There is on one hand the lived experience as what it feels like and on the other hand the ontology of mind/body interaction.

From the classic mind/body interaction cybernetic enhancements entail a form of the Cartesian dualism—a topic explored rigorously by Gilbert Ryle in “The Ghost in the Machine”—where the mind and body were two separate substances which as Ryle claims: this is a category mistake. However the argument in this film is not about substance dualism but an argument pertaining to lived experience within a given social set and setting, where in an event through rapid modernisation machines with consciousness became a reality would this be a form of messing with the human soul? Since the soul is equated with consciousness do we not challenge the sanctity of what we considered the thinking substance or ‘soul’. The film steers us to wonder if we are through rapid modernisation- given a cornucopia of delights, like virtual fish swimming across the street as utopia- in fact obliterated through forms of hegemonic exploitation by corporate greed rather than elevated into a cloud nine state of affairs. Hegemonic dystopia is when powerful elite duopolies fight for dominance and procure vulnerable people. This as the film depicts in a fast passed noir style seems plausible. The subaltern identities that roam the city streets and are taken to become brains in a shell for purposes of ‘law enforcement’ has similarities with inequality resource allocation. The film leaves the viewer to decide if this is ethical up until the final scene where Major who has a human brain decides the fate of a king pin. This might then be the moral political dimension of the film, but what about philosophy of mind?

Second, the dialogue between Major and the neuroscientist, where Major’s seemingly simple reply, “I am fine, I can’t feel anything,” begs the question, such as what it means to “feel” and to “be.” Major’s lack of feeling is reminiscent of David Chalmers’ “philosophical zombies,” entities that behave like conscious beings but lack subjective experience. The neuroscientist’s pointed question, “No, you, you in there?” This statement ‘you in there’ aligns with the tension between the social construction of identity as a ‘you’ constructed who is a social comparison and ‘in there’ as a thinking substance akin to classic Cartesian dualism notion of an indivisible soul who resides in the brain or as brain identity theorist claim is brain functionalism or the wet ware of the brain. The viewer is left to wonder at this point and rewarded in a following scene that interrogates the subject more probingly from a psychological view of polarising emotional states that could equate to Chalmers’ philosophical zombie’ or in fact another sense of what it is to be an experiencing thing in itself.

There is a boat scene: Major is asked by her enforcement team member why go deep diving: ‘it feels real’ Major claims which reenforces a striving for authenticity. This draws on the classic brain in a vat thought experiment, but unlike the brain in a vat- where the experiences are based on the not knowing of being a brain in a vat- Major knows to be a brain in shell and even suspects be duped by the system she in her previous incarnation rallied against as a counter culture or establishment figure. Though the philosophical question is does cybernetic enhancement increase or decrease or erase subjectively felt experiences? From the film, the answer is, or seems to be, a clear transformation but not a philosophical zombie although who could know even for a human point of view. After all Major has extra sensory visual capacities that go into the radio wave length of light but I don’t and this is only inferred through behaviours rather than experience. That’s clearly added capacity to human perception given the representation of the visual process. However Major lacks basic emotional social sentiments that link humans to a set of habitual routines that allow for bonding between people as an ethnographic identity.
The predicament of having lopsided perceptions not aligned to evolution is dubbed the alignment problem. It is depicted to an extent where the brain screams out through the shell as a form of protest to being confused emotionally even though empowered by extra sensory perceptions all for the political powers that constructed the charade.